a year of walking

i am not quite sure when the urge to walk at great length became a strong force in my life. i have not always been a walker. i am horse rider. a hiker. i like the mountains. i like to float around in the water without doing much swimming. i love being transported places by bus or especially train. i find flying tolerable and running a slog. i have spent some time cycling (mostly in china, where it isn’t so much cycling as sitting aboard a bicycle and peddling for dear life). and, somewhere in the last decade, i became a walker.

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it is perhaps down to a housemate of mine some years ago in dublin, ireland, who recounted her adventures walking a portion of the camino de santiago in spain for implanting this notion into my head. just going for a walk and not stopping. everyday, waking early, putting on dusty boots, and planting one foot in front of the other, resolutely, until arriving at another bed at another sunset.

or maybe it is down to my dad. i blame him, and thank him, for passing his nomad soul onto me. he has always been a traveller and a wanderer. sometimes through his telescope into the outer reaches of the galaxy, but also in a bread van full of surfboards, or thumb out waiting for a ride down the pacific coast highway, clandestine rides aboard midnight freight trains through the american west, and best of all, a coast-to-coast horse ride from california to virginia in 1974.

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when i was a kid, my grandfather (my mother’s father) often told stories of how he walked from his hometown of groveton, texas, to the next biggest town, lufkin as a young man in the early 1930s – a 30-mile(ish) walk. i have no idea what the details or truths about that story are, but i suppose the notion sank in. pilgrimages seem to run in my family, on both sides.

whatever the reason, the urge has strengthened as years passed. afternoons spent flaneuring around prague, or short saturdays walking the southeast london green chain seem only to have intensified this primal need to get the world underfoot. many evenings these days, after the very short stroll from work to london bridge, where i get the train home, the urge to just keep going overtakes me. i could go to the white cliffs of dover if i skipped the 17.37 service to west croydon.

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in the next few months, i will (fingers crossed, if all goes to plan, etc etc) receive permanent UK residence. i have decided to mark this milestone by walking across england by myself. it feels romantic and fitting and, frankly, completely terrifying. the somewhat bleak scenery around northumberland has always appealed to me, and the 84-mile trek along hadrian’s wall through that part of the world seemed the obvious choice from the start. mileage to be upped from wallsend to a finish at south shields, so that i might complete the coast-to-coast journey in homage to john egenes, my dad and hero.

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so i’ve started walking more in preparation. what were occasional 5k morning walks in to work are becoming regular. the odd weekend stroll around southeast london is in the process of becoming a weekly ten or 15k across the english countryside.

getting around on your feet feels natural. by yourself, your mind goes through stages of clear-out. first, fretting about the previous and next week’s worldly woes. then, contemplating the things that are really irking you, and next ruminating on things from bygone parts of your life, and finally thinking of nothing at all beyond the way the hills curve this way and that, or the slant of the sunlight off a large oak tree to the east, or how to manoeuvre through downward-sloping mud without completely biting it.

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it is when the mind reaches these last reaches that you are truly walking. everything prior is a build-up, just as your body warms and muscles loosen, so the mind clears itself of worries, stresses, interests and obsessions. this act then becomes a kind of zen meditation as the world expands and contracts at the same time and you, quite literally, stop thinking.

walking with a close friend or loved one is both a similar and different proposition. conversation undulates with the rolling of mounds. now you are laughing at something that happened in work. next silently scraping mud off boots with sticks collected under a giant tree. then a sudden deep-dive into why this relationship or that ended, or what might happen next with a long-lost love. a poignant memory arrives of some moment you had forgotten, and you relay it in the quiet confidence of the countryside while boots stamp gentle outlines into damp soil. more silence, a hawk overhead, echoing of footsteps off the side of a deserted barn. a moment to stop and figure out how and where we just got lost. and more silence.

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walking is not my favourite activity. i would rather be on a horse, the gentle forward-and-back of withers carrying me onwards. a pat on dusty neck signalling the pricking of ears and an enlivened stride. a chat, and a connection, with a fellow earthbound being, which simultaneously understands and does not give a shit about you. a cheeky canter across an unspoilt pasture that leaves you both a little breathless.

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but there are things to think about when you’re riding. is that flapping hay bale cover going to spook him? does his left hind feel off? shit, he just lost a shoe! here’s a patch of groundhog holes we need to avoid. argh, don’t let him put his head down for that loco weed. lean forward for an ascent up the mesa.

when you are walking, you cannot escape yourself: the long march of history, the cluttered back rooms of your own mind, or the moment when everything stops and you are totally and completely free, responsible only for one foot in front of the other.

things i want to tell londoners

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as i roll into nearly a year of working full time in central london, i have come to understand – and in some cases loathe – my commute. actually, most of the time my commute works like a well oiled machine, but there are still aspects of it that baffle, confound and annoy the shit out of me.

don’t get me wrong. i am incredibly grateful to have the access to public transportation that i do. to have the chance to gripe about my daily tube journey. but still. sometimes londoners do some weird things.

some things i want to tell londoners:

-if you don’t have your oyster card or ticket ready, don’t stand in front of the gates and rifle through your bag to find it. that is just annoying as shit.

-that whole “but i just topped it up” bit doesn’t work on the underground staff. i think they have probably heard it before once or twice.

-your agenda/schedule/day/mustn’tmissit appointment is no more important or urgent or life-threatening than mine, or anyone else’s. and huffing at me about it won’t hurry me up.

-walking fast and loudly behind me also won’t hurry me up. nor will your clackity heels (that goes for you too, boys).

-and also speaking to the boys, there are some of you who have chosen to wear a “cologne” that could also double as oven cleaner. mosquitos won’t go within a 10-metre radius of you and everytime i sit down next to you on the tube, my eyes begin to water. i am pretty sure that your dried up sex lives will attest to the fact that this scent is not, does not and will not ever get you laid.

-get a pair of decent headphones and turn the sound down. showing the world in no uncertain terms that you like justin beiber or that chick with the $ in her name is not doing you any favours.

and finally…

-jogging is just never a good use for a saturday afternoon. go out and get some culture, for gawd’s sake.

photo by brownincs

london, calling.

i began this post weeks ago. i had great intentions of telling you all the wonderful news that bill and i would be moving to london in a little over a month’s time. that my wonderful husband had secured a wonderful new job (with an energy news site off fleet street, no less!) and that even i was interviewing for a fancy job in one of the world’s greatest cities (i didn’t take it, by the way. i turns our i really AM way too much of a hippie to want to work in a corporate office.)

so here we are. it’s five weeks later and i’m blogging from the back room of a tiny camera shop-cum-cafe around the corner from the british museum, from my ipad. (first time using wordpress for ipad, by the way, and i’m loving it now that i learned how to turn off apple’s crazy auto-correct feature, which always hated my ee cummings-esque non-use of capital letters.)

we’ve been in london for 4 days now and i already love it. the way that hipsters and power suits alike dart down the streets, rushing to and fro, ducking into busy shops boasting mobile top up cards and cans of ale, or munching on designer sushi bentos at lunch. Continue reading “london, calling.”

the culinary exploits of a techspat

czech barbecue sauce & corn
"spak" bbq sauce and... why, is that corn on the cob?!

i am not sure i like the term ‘techspat’ just yet. that’s because i just made it up, mostly to describe myself and for the purposes of this blog, which involves some stuff about expat life and some stuff about tech, and also because i know that husby loves a good word play.

i am equally unsure about my love for cooking. in fact, wagering between the two, i think i already prefer the term ‘techspat’ to cooking in general. cooking has never been my forté. for as long as i can remember, i shouted at my mother (who sometimes tried to nudge me into learning) that i couldn’t cook and that i burned toast and that i hated cooking. i guess, despite myself, i always was a bit of a feminist.

but back to cooking. if you happen to read here “often” (bless you), you might remember me talking about being diagnosed with pre-diabetes last year. i’ve also blogged about travelling on a diet over at tripwolf.

the thing is, i love food. i never refer to myself as a foodie, though, because i don’t really know anything about food. i just know i love it. and i want to eat anything and everything. i was also raised with a keen sense of eating food from such faraway places as china and japan on a regular basis and, since my diagnosis last year, i have come to appreciate and, indeed, prefer a wide variety of foods in my diet, especially vegetables. Continue reading “the culinary exploits of a techspat”

a bit o’ bluegrass

giant mountains band, prague
giant mountains band

it seems no matter where i go in this world, i always need some good americana music to keep my soul in shape. perhaps it has something to do with being lugged around to bars as a baby, falling asleep on the floor while my mom and dad were sound checking with their various bands or maybe it was my mother playing the mandolin over her tummy when i was still in the womb. whichever combination of these things it is, i don’t know, but i need bluegrass.

interestingly, the czechs are really into bluegrass. in fact, they are into all sorts of americana, and there is even a subculture of czechs who actually go out into the woods with cowboy hats and boots and spurs and pretend to be in the wild west. i am not kidding.

Continue reading “a bit o’ bluegrass”

suburban prague

as you may notice, my last post was in november. it is now march the fourth. i would love to say that time has just gotten away from me here in my enjoyment of prague, but that would not be enitrely truthful. time did get away during december and january, when we had friends visiting for the holidays and then were off for several weeks for our dublin wedding and subsequent honeymoon in lisbon and rome. and i suppose i could’ve blogged about all that, but i didn’t.

so here we are in march.

Continue reading “suburban prague”

Photo by hobvias sudoneighm

check-ups in a foreign land

Photo by hobvias sudoneighmone of my favorite stories to tell people is about the time that i got rolled over on by a horse two weeks before my first trip to china and fractured my wrist and L3 vertebra. i was pretty out of it for a few days, but i got a cute, short cast (in purple) put on my left forearm and somehow managed to go on my merry way across the world for nearly a month of english teaching and then traveling.

despite my pleading, the US hospital was unwilling to take off my cast just four weeks into the healing process when i was due to fly out. instead, i’d have to wear the cast for an extra unnecessary four weeks because of my trip.

i was not prepared for the 40-degree heat and high humidity that would make my cast an unbearable prison within the first two days in china. the itching was so bad that i began sticking a chopstick down the cast, which would inevitably bring up chunks of rotting skin. that’s when i asked marco, an enigmatic chinese dude who wore aviators, carried a black man-purse and had connections in the nanjing mafia, to help me out.

[tweetmeme]off we went in marco’s little black VW jetta with its tailpipe barely rigged on by a coat hanger. we were staying at a private boarding school quite some distance from nanjing city, so the nearest hospital was one village away. it looked like something straight out of the cultural revolution. nurses wearing paper hats with red crosses on them had me fill in paperwork (thanks to marco, for my chinese reading was minimal at the time) and head down the bare concrete hall for x-rays to see if i was fit to have the cast off.

after two x-rays (the first of my casted arm and the second of my good arm, for comparison) taken by a massive and indescribably ancient machine, i was sent in to see the head honcho, who was seated in a dusty office with several other doctors, musing about my x-rays over green tea and cigarettes.

i was fit to have the cast taken off, he said, and i would be tended to in his private office, no less, just around the corner. after paying the mere $13 for x-rays and consultation, i sat nervously in the office.

Photo by David Schroeter

two nurses arrived and inspected the cast as if it were made from the intestines of an alien life form. they murmured a moment, disappeared and then reappeared with what can only be described as a humongous pair of scissors. one of the nurses struggled to stick an edge of the giant scissors down my teeny, silicon cast while the other watched with mysterious eyes. a lot of intense sawing ensued, none of which was successful in breaking me free of the little purple cast.

more murmuring and they were off again, this time returning with a tiny round saw. as they approached my cast, i prayed to god that this was the type of saw that could cut material but not skin and finally, my arm felt fresh air for the first time in five weeks. meanwhile, the nurses were enthralled with the cast and wanted to keep it as a souvenir, nasty rotten skin and all.

most people i tell this story to are fairly horrified by it, and that is in part why i love to tell it, but also because it is an apt example of just how harrowing it can be to receive medical attention in a foreign country. in all my moving around the world, i would venture to say that having a medical problem abroad has got to be the single worst part of expat life. the language barrier alone is enough to scare the lights out of you, not a mind fears about hygiene, sanitation, general medical knowledge of the doctors and everything else.

having just come from my first appointment at a sparkling new czech clinic with a brilliant doctor that spoke perfect english – all of which cost me only $1.69 in total – i can safely say that what is most interesting is that the scariest, most expensive and generally WORST doctor’s experiences i’ve ever had have been in the united states.

Photo by Flickr user Sugar Pondsure, the chinese hospital was dusty and old and the doctors were smoking inside, but they cared for me perfectly and didn’t send me bankrupt for it. and yeah, chinese pharmacists have given me a pill made out of cow gall bladder to soothe a cold before, but guess what? it worked.

same experiences in ireland, even seeing basic student doctors or walk-in clinics – all were incredibly well-appointed, clean and, most of all, the physicians were quite competent.

and best of all, unlike in the united states, most doctors around the world don’t just brush off your symptoms and shove the latest Pill of the Moment down your throat. they listen to your symptoms, check you thoroughly and offer remedies – whether they be herbal, pharmaceutical, dietary or otherwise – that are right for your condition. best of all, you are not asked to hand over ungodly sums of money to them for it.

and that makes all the scary moments of “will the doctor understand me?” and “will my medical history translate” completely worthwhile.

oh, and if anyone in prague wants the name of my awesome, english-speaking doctor, just lemme know and i’ll gladly send you her way.